Mrs Henry Wood's East Lynne


Ellen Price, who became 'Mrs Henry Wood' for the purposes of her fiction, was born in 1814 in the cathedral city of Worcester. Her use of her full married title in her publications gives a valuable initial clue to her literary stance, in an age when serious women novelists often took male-sounding pseudonyms (George Eliot, Currer Bell). The male pseudonym is almost always a cloak for radicalism or conscious originality in an author who thinks it likely that she will be judged prejudicially under the lethal double standard which condemned in a female author qualities likely to be praised in a male. Behind 'Currer Bell', Charlotte Brontë lies in hiding, anonymous, not desiring to be seen in person. But equally, 'Mrs Henry Wood', like 'Mrs Gaskell' or 'Mrs Craik', may be read as a kind of pseudonym. For behind 'Mrs Henry Wood' lies Ellen Price, in a bid for anonymity more absolute than George Eliot's, or than Mrs Gaskell's when she first appeared in print under the blustering northern masculine label of 'Cotton Mather Mills'. To declare oneself as 'Mrs Wood' is to say to the reading world that one is a safe, harmless, respectable, God-fearing, middle-class Englishwoman, probably endowed with children. It is to advertise one's novel as safe moral reading for the family circle, and as a sound acquisition for the circulating libraries. To add one's husband's Christian name for good measure, as 'Mrs Henry Wood' and 'Mrs Humphry Ward' did, is to emphasize the point doubly. Such a pseudonym declares the author's active and militant conservative bias, her willed acknowledgement of the binding power of patriarchal norms: it may even suggest a potentially interesting tendency to extremism in this direction. Ellen Price had come into the world with a curious and wide-ranging mind, in an ailing body which made her a virtual invalid in her teens but encouraged her to read widely and live imaginatively in the liberating world of books. Behind the pseudonym, 'Mrs Henry Wood', Ellen Price claims to be deleted. She claims to be writing a 'safe' book.

But Ellen Price was not deleted; her book is not safe reading. Mrs Henry Wood had it both ways, in all her literary transactions. East Lynne, which came out in 1861, was circulated by Mudie's, and eventually sold over 500,000 copies. By 1900, sales of her novels totalled over two and a half million copies. 'Safe' novels do not bring in so much money. The mask of female orthodoxy allowed Mrs Wood to get away with murder – and with adultery, lust, hauntings, sadism and masochism. Her novels belong to the 'sensational' class which Victorian womanhood, bored to death in the suffocating, leisurely world of middle-class domesticity, was eager to pay for. The motive for her writing was the need for money, Mr Henry Wood's business life having collapsed, so that his wife, whilst refusing the cover of a male pseudonym, paradoxically adopted the allegedly 'male' role of breadwinner to her household. In 1867 she took over and prodigiously contributed to the Argosy Magazine, having worked so diligently at her business of writing sensation-novels as to have produced fifteen novels in seven years. Accounts of her personality reveal an astonishingly commonplace woman whose huge business acumen and taste for hair-raising subject-matter were unguessable behind a conversation devoted to the theme of the common cold and the servant-problem. Mrs Henry Wood both in her social life and within the world of her fiction thus hides and protects the Ellen Price whose joy in the profane, the lewd and the extraordinary is let loose in her lucrative fiction, and simultaneously with great propriety condemned there by the disciplinarian voice of one consciously writing as the authoress, rather than the author.

Her own generation loved East Lynne, and greedily read all the novels that followed including The Channings and The Shadow of Ashlydyat – because of her brilliant story-telling ability. Both The Observer and The Times praised East Lynne's narrative skill, with its crafty plot-construction and its capacity to generate and hold suspense. For all the narrator's mannerisms and bad taste, there is a sense of a pure joy in tale-telling in Mrs Wood's writing, which can overpower the objections of even a jaundiced reader. Discriminating, or highbrow, contemporary readers condemned her faults of artistic conception and execution; the public showed no such qualms, consenting to be enthralled by her flair for melodrama and labyrinthine plotting. She fell out of fashion, heavily, in the present century. 'Mrs Henry Wood' could not hope to survive under the pressure of the intellectual high-seriousness of Modernism, with its avant-garde positives for artistic taste: almost a new kind of Victorianism in its prescriptive certainties. But East Lynne has surfaced for a new generation, under the liberating awareness generated partly by the medium of television that the magic of the mere story-teller's art is not something to be scorned as menial, even if it does not come freighted with the philosophic wisdom of the ages. Perhaps it is now possible to perceive the figure of 'Ellen Price' in the persona of 'Mrs Henry Wood'.

The main plot of East Lynne (underscored by a linked sub-plot concerned with murder) is concerned with love and marriage. It turns upon the axis of the sexual fall of its heroine, Lady Isabel Vane, to one of the most superbly malevolent and caddish villains in all Victorian literature, Francis Levison. Its morality is retributive and unforgiving. The divorced Lady Isabel returns as unrecognized governess to her own children, living on through the second half of the novel with the status of a wraith, or spectre, as if fetched from her grave. At the very moment of her sexual 'sin' she morally dies: is to be considered as a walking, watching corpse of womanhood, her features scarred by the train-accident, her eyes mere optic nerves peering through the disfiguring green lens of disguising spectacles, seeing but unseen, her bastard child dead, her husband lost to Another, her legitimate son dying under her eyes. No one can see her. When she is recognized, the servant faints with terror, thinking her a ghost. She ought to be, and would definitely be happier, in the grave. For her existence is cancelled. This is demonstrable, for she is replaced. Her vacated place is taken, the wronged husband taking to his bosom a replacement wife, who assumes the attributes and most of the habits of her predecessor: sings her songs at her piano, bears the good man's children, hangs on his every word.

Personality is dangerous in Mrs Henry Wood's world, if you are a woman, and want to remain safely within orthodox society. Your nature is assimilated to your wifehood, and the duties of a wife are universal. Mrs Henry Wood's novel makes a classic statement of the Victorian sexual code for women. The wages of sin is death. For women, this means sexual 'sin', the sin against the Holy Ghost being adultery, since the good man is God in his own household. The code is barbaric and primitive. Mrs Henry Wood shows no overt desire to criticize it. On the contrary she seems to relish it. She endorses its unforgiving judgment in a ringing authorial voice which urges the female reader to profit by the horrific fate of the gentle and aristocratic Lady Isabel, by sticking close to her own husband, putting up with her lot and avoiding jealousy, which, rather than lust, seems to be defined as woman's original sin.

In Archibald Carlyle's second wife, Barbara Hare (who spent the whole of the first half of the novel being jealous, and may be supposed to have got it out of her system prior to matrimony) Mrs Wood offers a dark-haired 'twin' to the fair Lady Isabel, and an exemplum of the model wife, a stereotype which is set forth in fascinating detail. Her role embodies for the young reader all sorts of useful guidelines for marital behaviour. Do not insist on staying in to breast-feed your baby if your husband wishes to take you out to dinner. Do not see too much of your children during the day for they will ruin your temper; you will inevitably shout at them, thus making it impossible for them to benefit from regular short doses of maternal serenity. (There is a great deal of practical reality involved in the valid observations of domestic chaos which inform the dubious conclusions the author preaches.) The greatest 'Thou Shalt Not' in the book is the prohibition on female sexual desire, reinforcing the property-basis of Victorian marriage. The wife and her children belong to the husband as his property, and the wife can justly be cast aside from him, if she offends. The lawyer Blackstone had expressed in his eighteenth-century Commentaries the legal fact that 'Man and wife are one person under the law, and that person is the man.' Lady Isabel falls from Grace: she is cast aside in a gesture which echoes the violent expulsion of the angels from Jahweh's tender care in the Old Testament myth. Lady Isabel is explicitly presented as an 'angel' who becomes a fallen angel on her elopement, and is ruthlessly wiped out for one mistake. A sexual mistake, for a woman, is contaminating, according to this code. The penetration of Isabel by the stock villain, the lewd Captain Levison, results in an incurable moral disease, and disease is the dominating image in the second half of the novel. It is not accidental that Lady Isabel dies of an inherited disease (her father is a dissipated rake, and dies a nasty death on the serve-him-right principle), suggesting original sin passed genetically from generation to generation, transmitted from Eve. Both Lady Isabel and her legitimate son die of tuberculosis, supposedly congenital.

The collapse of feminine personality into the male will is terrifyingly dramatized in East Lynne. Only one or two more minor characters are allowed to escape from this bondage: Miss Carlyle, a stock comic virago; Afy, or Aphrodite, the low-born and flighty source of the sub-plot (murder and intrigue), impersonating – again comically, in the author's sole concession to classical learning – the goddess of love, Venus/Aphrodite, who is rather indulged by the author. But then, as a member of the lower classes, she cannot really be held responsible for her actions in the same way as the patrician Lady Isabel, who should have known better. The novel is fascinated by the upper classes. But true stable English virtue is seen to reside in the solid professional middle classes, the lawyer Archibald Carlyle, with his good sense, correct manners and fidelity to the patriarchal norm.

Yet this novel, sensational, melodramatic, sometimes ludicrous and often morally objectionable, is a genuine classic of Victorianism. In its weaknesses are rooted its strengths. It is written not with power but with immense gusto and relish; its hectic and most improbable plot is a triumph of the active enjoyment of story-telling. The fallen heroine, who returns as governess to her own children so implausibly, and is judged with such a heathen lack of compassion by the authorial voice, is also treated with a covert and subversive sympathy generated by the close examination of her motives and feelings. In order to show that 'This could happen to you', the author succeeds in making us say 'Of course it could', and abstain from casting stones. East Lynne in fact defies the stern code of morality which it claims to preach. By making such a pandemonium about the wickedness of her characters' behaviour, Mrs Henry Wood covers her tracks adroitly. Those tracks lead into the forbidden areas of Victorian society where normally the novel may not trespass. We stealthily penetrate behind the bedroom doors of the respectable classes and find that all is not well there; we overhear the conversation of bankrupts, accused murderers and lady-killers; perceive the joyless making of bastards, and the flight of the abject to the Continent, where bad behaviour, both sexual and economic, is to be expected. The literary taboos on sex and violence, those forbidden areas to the Victorian novelist, are thus side-stepped by the constant irruption of the author into scandalized outbursts of 'Disgraceful!', in assenting to which we are able to extract the utmost voyeuristic pleasure and simultaneously be absolved from any guilt at collusion.

Throughout, there is a dominating image of beady eyes watching. Lady Isabel jealously observes and misinterprets her husband's behaviour; Richard Hare, the wanted 'criminal', watches his house at dead of night; his sister Barbara watches out for the true criminal; Levison watches Isabel with lewd, predatory eyes; finally Isabel in disguise watches her own household go on without her, tormented by sexual jealousy and with maternal longings as her son William dies in a protracted and lugubrious exercise of the art of literary tear-jerking. The novelist watches too, with her censorious but always bright and entertained eyes, and opens the window for us to participate as voyeurs of the whole. In many ways, her vision of the fate of fallen women must seem to us as to enlightened Victorians an inferno, whose retributive ire is equally appalling and absurd: so much punishment for a lapse so brief and so deeply regretted; so great a latitude allowed to the rather questionable dealings of the 'innocent' husband, Archibald Carlyle, a lawyer who shelters a bankrupt, exposes his wife to a known philanderer and protects a wanted criminal from the law over a period of years. In addition to his exemplification of this double standard for men and women, no hero can ever have been more boring than Archibald. The villain's coarse and brutal idiom, brilliantly caught by Mrs Henry Wood, with her precise ear for repartee and the unpleasant nuance of male callousness, is far more interesting than the discourses of the priggish hero. The author makes her stock bad characters live fascinatingly and sensationally; her stock situations are recounted with extraordinary verve and conviction, salted by realism bred of close observation of people's mannerisms and habits of speech.

East Lynne has been laughed at as a vulgar and uncritical book. But if this is vulgarity, it manifests itself here as a virtue. For it means that Mrs Henry Wood includes a great deal which a more reticent author might have left unsaid, and thus reveals a panorama of moral reality larger than that provided by most contemporaries. Against East Lynne's conservative statement of the moral norm we may focus the radical and feminist moralities of Emily and Charlotte Brontë, and the compassionate discriminating perspective of George Eliot, in their treatment of comparable material. But even here we may get some uncomfortable shocks. For George Eliot, upholder of a liberal creed which is supposed to stand against the barbarities of Victorian sexual codes, cannot think any more than Mrs Wood what to do with a bastard when it is born, and has Hetty Sorrel in Adam Bede commit infanticide on hers, as Mrs Wood has to consign hers to a train accident. Likewise Mrs Craik commits a sort of authorial euthanasia in The Head of the Family. Only Mrs Gaskell in Ruth struggled with the problem with any degree of courage, allowing her heroine's illegitimate child to survive and be integrated in society, and vehemently denying the horrible doctrine that an illegitimate child is a 'disgrace' and a 'badge of her shame'. Against East Lynne's sense of the delicious and lucrative possibilities of forbidden fruit in the tale of the rake's progress and society's manic joy in the punishment of female unchastity, we may gain insight into the opened-eyed, austere and compassionate attitude taken by Anne Brontë to similar material in her painful Tenant of Wildfell Hall. We may compare Mrs Wood's scene of the protracted death of William with Dickens' treatment of similar popular topics in Little Nell and find East Lynne not losing in comparison, when it comes to a sense of reality and an awareness of childish thought-patterns. The material exploited by Mrs Wood is germane to her age, and to an understanding of its conflicts and preoccupations, as well as to its moral and aesthetic commitments. Additionally, there is a unique use of the interesting theme of the 'twinning' of individual identities, familiar in the period. The two wives of Archibald Carlyle move against one another throughout the novel, polarized from the beginning so as to form the basic element of the novel's structure and the major conflict of interests. Their fortunes are mutually dependent, though founded on mutual animosity. Lady Isabel in the first half, glittering with jewels which she does not quite own, and gifted with a husband she cannot quite trust, looks on Barbara as a potential rival: it is through this unfounded jealousy that she begins to slide towards her fall. Barbara symmetrically looks toward the apparently idyllic marriage of the Carlyles with baleful and hopeless jealousy. The rancour at the heart of jealousy, and the destructive power of female jealousy in a world where your only real property is your investment in marriage, are convincingly and uniquely examined by Mrs Henry Wood. In the second half, Barbara's rise is dependent on Isabel's fall: from Isabel's divorce stems Barbara's wedding. Isabel scrutinizes her rival's triumph, which she has made possible. It is a moral triumph too, which Isabel has ironically made possible by disgracing herself, for Barbara can learn by example to emancipate herself from the corrosive bitterness of jealousy. Isabel's torment in her role as unrecognized 'double' is that she must continue to burn with suppressed envy and gall. Dante never thought up a torment half as convincing as Mrs Wood makes this of eternal jealousy seem.

At the heart of its melodrama and its romantic view of marriage, there lies a curiously robust realism in East Lynne. The author does not pretend that love's first hectic raptures last. Woman's lot is likely – she gives it about two years at the most – to be less than idyllic, for your husband is in the course of things through familiarity liable to cool in ardour and set his mind on external matters, like business. The message is that you aim for a sensible and steady affection from your husband, fuelling this as far as possible by a stoic maintenance of his comforts and precedence, and aim for security and respectability rather than excitement. Presumably, the allowable excitements of heady fiction like East Lynne would compensate as the flame of matrimonial passion dims down to a homely glow.

Dr Stevie Davies. University of Manchester, 1984


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